When Mayor Leni Sitnick banged down the gavel to open Asheville City Council’s March 27 formal session, the crack of wood against wood — which normally resonates throughout the cavernous chamber — seemed muffled in a room filled to capacity with anxious members of the public. Every seat was taken, and a dozen more citizens stood patiently in the hallway. Murmurs and nervous banter competed with the sound of creaking chairs and shuffled papers. Copies of Council’s agenda were perused like racing forms on Derby Day. And with five public hearings on the agenda, it was a safe bet that Council would come out of the gate strong; the only question was whether the public would have the endurance down the backstretch to keep up with a young filly called UDO (Unified Development Ordinance). Even seasoned Council watchers have had a hard time figuring out this pony. Lately, she’s been a horse of many colors.
At the start of the meeting, the mayor sized up the crowd and asked for a show of hands to gauge which public hearing had attracted the high level of interest. Most of those in attendance indicated that they were there for the last public hearing on the schedule — the one to consider allowing a parking lot at the corner of Charlotte Street and Edwin Place. The proposed gravel lot, which would be landscaped with trees and shrubs, would contain all of 11 spaces and occupy only one-third of an acre. But the project has sparked a firestorm of debate, pitting neighbors against merchants and leaving city leaders scratching their heads over how such a small and seemingly innocuous request could result in such a brouhaha (see sidebar for further details).
The report from Planning and Development staff recommended that Council approve the conditional-use permit for the project if the site plan meets all the conditions identified by the city’s Technical Review Committee, which had already approved the project. But the report also mentioned that the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, at its March 7 meeting, had asked city staff to consider adding P&Z review as a step in the approval process for conditional-use permits governing such “ancillary uses.” Because these uses are potentially intrusive into residential areas, the commission felt that having an additional opportunity for public involvement would be appropriate. The report from Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford agreed, saying city staff will draft a UDO amendment for Council and P&Z to consider. Shuford also noted that Council always has the right to refer any request for a conditional-use permit request to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
After debating the permit request, Council members did decide to send it to P&Z for review. But it was a close vote, and many in the audience seemed dismayed by the decision. The debate centered on two key concerns: whether Council members had enough information to make an informed decision, and whether they could turn away a crowd of people champing at the bit, eager to have their say in a public forum that had been advertised as happening that evening.
The problem, noted Council member Charles Worley, is that due to the quasi-judicial nature of such hearings, Council members may not give the impression of having been influenced by public opinion before a hearing is held; impartiality must be maintained. In other words, when a controversial project is wending its way through the permit process and the public floods Council members with phone calls, e-mails and faxes, Council must ignore them. And faced with the prospect of postponing the hearing, Worley said: “These things are frustrating. … I’ve tried to respond [to citizen concerns], but we can’t talk about it ahead of the public hearing.” He also expressed reluctance about postponing a hearing that so many had turned out for.
Meanwhile, Council member Terry Bellamy asked Shuford, “Why are we going about this differently?” Shuford replied that in the past, the city hasn’t had to go through this lengthy process for such small projects. And Senior Planner Gerald Green later clarified that because the property is zoned residential, a parking lot is considered an “ancillary use” requiring a conditional-use permit.
Bellamy, however, had questions about the project’s impact on traffic in the area and wondered why there was no traffic study among the various staff reports given to Council. Shuford replied: “It doesn’t have the scale of impact. That’s why we don’t have a lengthy traffic study.” But a dissatisfied Bellamy continued: “I need additional information before I can make a decision. I need a traffic count. I feel that it’s imperative — I’m sorry, I know a lot of people have come out.” City Traffic Engineer Michael Moule indicated that while a project this small doesn’t normally merit a full-blown traffic study, he could get a rough estimate of traffic flow.
Both Council and the public seemed baffled by the fact that, despite a 45-minute discussion of the conditional-use-permit process, they hadn’t even gotten to the public hearing on the parking lot yet. Roger James, representing the Albemarle Park/Manor Grounds Association (which opposes the parking lot) expressed some of the frustration felt by those in attendance.
“There’s been a lot of confusion about what the procedure is,” said James, calling on Council to get clear on the rules governing quasi-judicial hearings and then stick to them. “We’re getting mixed messages. One Council member talks to me for 15 minutes on the issue, and one Council member sends me an e-mail message back saying, ‘I cannot consider any of your comments.'”
Mayor Sitnick responded: “This is new for us too. We’ve changed the conditional-use process a couple of times. We are trying to make it more user-friendly, and once we have that nailed down, it would be my suggestion to staff that we do some public information on our government channel about the various processes that we undertake, so that your questions can be answered.”
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger then made a motion, seconded by Council member Ed Hay, to send the issue to the Planning and Zoning Commission for their recommendation. Supported by Bellamy and Council member Barbara Field, the motion passed 4-3, with Sitnick, Worley and Brian Peterson opposed. That postponed the public hearing until April 10. In the meantime, P&Z will consider the issue on April 4, when the public will have a chance to provide input.
Different lot, similar result
In another public hearing about a conditional-use permit for a parking lot — this one located next to the East Village Grill on Grandview Place — Council again heard lengthy presentations by the petitioner (Nicholas Papanastasiou) and by neighbors opposed to the project. But there was one major difference that seemed to surprise both city staff and Council: Papanastasiou had already built his lot, and his permit request came somewhat after the fact. He explained that he had torn down a house and built the parking lot next to his restaurant before acquiring the necessary permits because it had saved him money. That prompted Council member Peterson to cite “the old adage [that] it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than … to ask for permission.”
But Papanastasiou’s unauthorized construction didn’t sit well with Council members, who feared that granting his request after the fact might send a mixed message about the importance of permits. During the hearing, questions were raised about buffer fences and the placement of dumpsters and lighting. Council voted unanimously to send the permit back to city staff to see if any of these issues could be resolved amicably by the concerned parties. It will then come back before Council for a final vote on April 10.
The three remaining public hearings were uneventful. One concerned rezoning a section of the Moore’s Building Supply property on the Smokey Park Highway from Highway Business District to Commercial Industrial District. No one spoke in opposition, and Council adopted the proposal unanimously.
Another uncontested hearing involved a conditional-use permit to convert the former Kenilworth Inn on Caledonia Road into an apartment complex. Council unanimously approved the proposal with the condition that the developer include a sheltered bus stop on the property, as recommended by city staff. After initially resisting the requirement, the developer’s representative agreed to include the shelter in their plans. Before the hearing ended, Council member Bellamy asked whether any of the 84 proposed units would be earmarked for people with limited incomes. She prefaced her statement by noting that it was not a factor in her vote, but added that the area needs all the affordable housing it can get. The representative indicated that he would pass on the request to developer Frank Howington
The other hearing concerned the city’s purchase of 155 acres on Azalea Road for a combination city recreation area/landfill. City Attorney Bob Oast spelled out the terms of the $1.6 million deal, which involves three contiguous tracts of land. The payments will be spread out over 59 months, but two of the purchases will be at 0 percent interest, which brought smiles to the faces of those in attendance. Council voted unanimously to approve the contracts.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the hearing addressed only the purchase of the property, not the proposed uses, which some in the community have opposed. A March 7 memo by City Manager Jim Westbrook had caused some alarm among project opponents. Westbrook wrote, “Since the inert debris site operation plan is logistical in nature there are no plans to solicit public input.” This seemed to contradict a promise made by Council to allow public input on the city’s plans for the site. During the hearing, Westbrook maintained that the memo, sent to city staff, was not an attempt to circumvent Council’s promise. Instead, he indicated that if the city’s plans for the site were approved, the logistics of the landfill operation would be handled by staff. No member of the public rose to speak on the issue.
Finally, under the new-business portion of the agenda, Council revisited its plans to annex five outlying areas. City Planner Paul Benson outlined plans for providing city services (such as fire, police, water, sewer and sanitation) to the areas. That, he said, will cost the city $33,744 per year. But the expected revenue from the annexed areas (based on property taxes, sales taxes, state utility-franchise taxes and the like) will be about $300,000 annually. Council unanimously adopted the plans. The next step in the annexation process will be a May 3 public-information meeting.